A Surprising Answer about the Afterlife
by Deepak Chopra, MD
Even as modern society turns away more and more from organized religion, spiritual questions linger. The most universal question, after asking if God exists, concerns life after death. As complicated as the issue seems to be, it can be broken down into three perspectives that in themselves are simple. The perspective of a believer supports life after death; the skeptical perspective denies it; the undecideds stand in the middle.
Yet even where militant skeptics and devout believers declare their certainty, everyone bases their position secondhand. The lack of direct proof renders the afterlife a non-question. It has been a non-question for as long as recorded history. Therefore, the fundamental issue is actually whether the afterlife can be transformed into a viable question.
I believe it can, but it requires an open mind that has discarded the received wisdom that skeptics and believers both cling to. Turning the afterlife into a valid question must return to basics, which means clearly defining our terms.
The most basic term in this case is consciousness, because if you don’t specify what consciousness actually is, you wind up worrying about the survival of the soul, or of “me,” the individual ego-personality. Even if those pitfalls are avoided, Eastern traditions are filled with equally confusing notions of Jiva, Atman, and Brahman, or of Nirvana and Satori.
If there is a definition of consciousness in the absence of bias, predisposition, received wisdom, myth, group pressure, wishful thinking, fear, apprehension, and mental figments of every sort, the afterlife will become a viable question. So what can we truthfully say about consciousness that no reasonable person will disagree with? Here I can relate a few things that I’ve been able to explain to people over the years.
1. There is only one consciousness. To subdivide consciousness makes no sense. This point is lifted almost verbatim from Erwin Schrödinger, the eminent quantum physics pioneer. Philosophically, the “one consciousness” position is common to monistic schools, because they repudiate any true difference, ontologically, between the one and the many. Yet when dealing with everyday people, it’s obvious that we all cling fervently to being separate individuals, outfitted with “my” family, house, body, mind, and soul.
To crack this allegiance requires arguments like the following: When you get wet, do you call it “my” wet? If you sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as you walk down the street, did the song walk down the street with you? If you imagine your mother’s face, where is that mental image located? The brain has no pictures in it, and no light. When you imagine your mother’s face, you simply call up what you wish to see. In all these examples, the experience seems personal but is actually rooted in a shared consciousness that is applicable to everyone.
2. The second point reasonable people can accept is that this “one consciousness” cannot be located. It is everywhere, all at once. This point sounds like a hard sell, but in everyday life the argument is easily based upon physics. Cosmologists and quantum physicists agree that spacetime originated in a domain (variously referred to as the zero point, the quantum vacuum state, or the realm of pure mathematics) that isn’t in time and space.
The entire universe, as well as individual subatomic particles, emerged from this pre-created state, which has no qualities we would recognize such as linear time, dimensionality, solidity, energy, etc. At the very least, all creation stories, scientific or not, converge on the creation of something out of nothing. Beyond our experience of reality in spacetime, there is a field of infinite potential and unbounded possibilities. The pre-created state is therefore always and now, here and everywhere.
3. The next point is that the field of all possibilities is conscious. There is no doubt that the existence of consciousness must be accounted for. There are only two viable possibilities that are taken seriously. The “matter first” position holds that mind has its origins in matter and energy (to which some theorists add information). The “mind first” position holds that consciousness is the source of everything, including matter and energy.
If there are only these two positions, how do we decide between them? The two explanations are incompatible and, more critically, totally self-consistent. It isn’t possible to step outside the framework of “mind first” or “matter first” to gather evidence. In deciding between “mind first” and “matter first,” the crux is a single question. Is it more probable that matter somehow learned to think or that mind can create matter?
It seems astonishing that more than 90% of scientists are so conditioned to reduce every issue to matter and energy (to use the favored term nowadays, they are physicalists), they accept without investigation the assumption that the sugar in a sugar cube, once ingested, can travel past the blood-brain barrier and suddenly think, feel, wish, dream, and do science. No one has remotely come close to showing the point in evolutionary history where ordinary molecules acquired consciousness. Therefore, the very notion that the brain is the only “thing” in creation that has consciousness is untenable. The brain is composed of ordinary atoms and molecules. It didn’t become conscious through the random combination of complex organic chemicals.
The argument for “mind first” is much stronger. The simplest argument is the impossibility of the “matter first” position , which leaves only one other viewpoint that can possibly be true. But to most people such an argument feels like sleight of hand. Therefore, we can point to the human brain, where every sensation, image, feeling, and thought pushes brain chemicals around, redirects them to various parts of the body, causes vital signs to change either slowly or abruptly, and actually produces some chemicals, such as neurotransmitters, simply through experiences in consciousness.
In physics the creation of something out of nothing has been lurking in the background as the ultimate question, yet with reference to everyday experience, the mystery becomes both personal and self-evident. If someone whispers, “I love you” in your ear, the mind-body system will display hundreds of changes dissimilar to what occurs if the whispered words are “I have a gun pointed at your heart.” The deciding factor isn’t material in the slightest; it consists of mental activity, the continual production of thoughts, words, meaning, purpose, direction, intention, and so on.
It is far from impossible to convince reasonable people that these points are true, — they stem from defining consciousness in the most basic, intuitively validated way. Now consider how the argument can be applied to the existence of the afterlife.
· Consciousness, being nonlocal, is not subject to birth and death.
· Even in physicalist terms, there must be a pre-created state beyond time and space. Birth and death, being aspects of linear time, are not present there.
· An argument can be made that certain abstract experiences, such as mathematics and information, have an indestructible aspect, again immune to birth and death.
· Body, mind, and the world “out there” cannot be divorced from our experience. The only reasonable location for body, mind, and the outside world is in consciousness itself.
· If all of the above are true, then nothing exists except as a modified state of consciousness. Some of these states we identify as matter and energy, but this is simply a habit built up for cultural reasons. There have been societies where “mind first” was just as self-evident as “matter first” is to us.
Having laid out, in truncated form, the argument for consciousness as the basis of reality, not everyone may be willing to follow the clues that lead to an afterlife. But that isn’t as important as realizing that we have been asking the wrong questions all along, and what made them wrong was the exclusion of consciousness.
Until we are all willing to think fresh thoughts instead of flogging received opinions, consciousness won’t rescue us from an age-old dilemma. If consciousness begins to expand on an individual basis, there is hope for clarity. More importantly, we can begin to bring centuries of baseless fear and superstition to an end. I suggest that ending the superstition of materialism would be a good start.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Chopra #17 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com